Air Liquide bolsters teamwork and partnerships to support South African Industry during COVID-19 pandemic
Keen focus on priorities kept healthcare and industry supplied in challenging times, says Taki Nkhumeleni, acting CEO & Finance Director
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and lockdown was implemented, South African healthcare and industry alike were faced with challenges in delivering services and business as usual.
At Air Liquide South Africa, Taki Nkhumeleni, Finance Director and acting CEO, was hard at work with her team, defining the company’s strategies. “There were three distinct priorities we defined – protecting the safety and wellbeing of our employees and their families, protecting employment and the Company’s sustainability, and protecting the citizens of the country by providing essential industrial and medical gases.”
These priorities informed the company’s pivot to ensure safety, manage cash flow, and most importantly, deliver crucial gases to keep hospitals and industrial customers operations. This meant shifting certain priorities and shelving some of the company’s plans for the year, which had been earmarked as a big growth year. Nkhumeleni and her team had to prepare to help meet a dramatic increase in the normal national medical gases consumption..
“We saw an increase in demand for medical gases, but at the same time we faced the challenge of the truck drivers’ strike, which increased risk and put us under a lot of pressure to ensure we delivered to hospitals the much needed oxygen. We worked tirelessly to reorganise logistics to prioritise medical gases over industrial gases in that critical time, and we managed to avoid any run dries whilst keeping open communications with our customers,” says Nkhumeleni.
Measures that were implemented included having to arrange South African Police Service escorts and enable night deliveries – which we do not ordinarily do as a company policy. “We have a night driving policy where we don’t normally allow drivers to drive between 8pm and 5am; but we had to relax that rule and ensure we had fresh staff who were trained to drive at night, and we had to constantly monitor them during that critical period,” says Nkhumeleni. We continue to do so in some instances where hospital demand is suddenly rising.”
Nkhumeleni notes that Air Liquide has recently done upgrade on oxygen installations in numerous hospitals to ensure they could cope with an increase in consumption up to five times the normal pre Covid19 need, and we have also provided oxygen concentrators to Hospitals of Netcare Group and to the Nasrec field hospital near Johannesburg, to help protect the lives of our citizens.
Communication, collaboration in uncertain times
“Communication and collaboration have been key to sustaining operations during this challenging time,” says Nkhumeleni. “We have stepped up engagement between the management team and staff. We have also fostered closer relationships with the Southern Africa Compressed Gases Association the public sector – at this point we have a very close link to the National Treasury who facilitates a lot of the work for hospitals, for example, and we work with the Department of Labour,and do reach out to the Department of Health.”
Transparency and communication with industrial customers has also been important, particularly during the time when assuring oxygen supplies for healthcare has been the country’s top priority. “We’ve maintained a good relationship with our customers, and have kept monitoring their stock levels, with open communications in terms of priorities and when we could deliver. Within a matter of days, we were able to ensure the industrial customers were back to full capacity.”
“The whole team handled this with a lot of positive energy,” says Nkhumeleni. “We know why we are doing what we are doing, and this gave us that energy to keep pushing ourselves to achieve our goals.”
Leading into the new normal
With no signs of a return to ‘business as usual’ in the foreseeable future, Nkhumeleni is bracing herself to guide her team into a new normal, in which difficult decisions may be necessary and transparency is crucial.
Nkhumeleni focuses on close engagement and collaboration to ensure every employee understands how each one contributes to the success of everyone – the company, colleagues, their families, customers and the broader community.
Safety and wellbeing will remain our key priority. “We have to protect our employees, protect employment and protect the business. We may have to adapt to a whole new way of working and enabling this in itself has been challenging. Throughout the early days of the pandemic there were issues raised, and we have moved to address them and allay any concerns employees may have had,” says Nkhumeleni. “We believe engagement is key to all of this, so we are putting LCD screens at plants to relay messages to staff and keep employees informed. They also have a dedicated line to raise questions and they get answered every week. Have we been successful in maintaining morale and ensuring we deliver the best possible service to our stakeholders? It will be interesting to look back in October on all our actions to see how successful we were.”